Does this illustration ring a bell? It is from a children’s book called ‘The Snowy Day’. Written in 1962 by Ezra Keats, a Brooklyn-born illustrator, this simple tale is still read by children today and I remember reading it in the 90s. Keats’ illustrations are iconic and though you may not remember the title, you certainly remember the unique collage-like and ‘blocky’ style. But if its not familiar to you, the story focuses on a little boy named Peter enjoying a particularly snowy day. What makes this children’s book so special is that Peter is African American, visible in a society that was struggling with racial hatred and the fight for civil rights. More importantly, Peter was the first black child protagonist in an American fully-coloured children’s book.
But Keats didn’t write this book to be an radical message of racial tolerance, Keats was just dismayed at the lack of African American children in books. During his acceptance speech for the prestigious Caldecott Medal, Keats cited a series of Time magazine photographs of a young black boy as his inspiration for Peter. He told the Caldecott audience that this unknown child planted the seed for Peter, one whom Keats would consistently refer back to. The thematic mix of childhood innocence, colour blindness, and the wish for a progressive American made Keats’ book extremely popular.
However, Keats encountered criticism that his book didn’t utilise Peter’s character to address racial hatred in a radical way. Yet I still think that the timelessness of the story lies with the fact that it doesn’t directly concern issues of race, it centres around one little boy who happens to be black. In the book, Peter is undeniably and unapologetically the star without one mention of his colour, and therefore Keats never makes Peter’s race something worth debating – he is there because he has a right to be.
In 2016 Amazon produced a TV film version of The Snowy Day, mimicking Keats’ unique artwork. The film stands as a testimony for Keats’ timeless work but also perhaps as a testimony to the unaltered need for equal racial representation in children’s literature and film.
Edith Nesbit is well known for her wonderful contributions to the British canon of children’s literature. Her books have a transcendent quality. My grandparents read them, my parents did, and I was encouraged to as well. Yet, I discovered recently that Penguin re-published her collection of horror stories, titled ‘Tales of Horror’, and it includes some very creepy short stories. I cannot be alone when I confess that I had no idea that Nesbit authored fourcollections of horror stories. Whether or not this is down to an simple overshadowing by her acclaimed children’s books, or a more biased disbelief in the abilities of a female author to write horror, it is difficult to determine. Nevertheless, four collections of horror stories speak of Nesbit’s enthusiasm, or even a need to write using horror stylistics. Before I go into her stories, it is worth noting several biographical aspects that could shed light some light on her work…
Perhaps a more well known fact about Nesbit was her turbulent and seemingly abusive marriage to Hubert Bland in 1880, with whom she would co-found the famous socialist group the Fabian Society. Her life leading up to her marriage, aged 19, was equality as turbulent. Frequent moves around England and France with her mother and sickly sister, Mary, and the death of her father when she was just four perhaps instilled a resilience to the instability that stayed with her. I can find no other reason why Nesbit would have the courage to withstand her later lifestyle.
After falling pregnant, Bland and Nesbit married. Not long afterwards, Nesbit discovered that her husband had already fathered a child with his ailing mother’s companion. Bland would continue this pattern of self-indulgent infidelity, and would father yet another child with Nesbit’s close friend, Alice. It is a testament to Nesbit’s courage and comparative tenderness that she eventually allowed both Alice and daughter to stay within her house, Alice employed as Bland’s secretary. Her daughter was later adopted by Bland and Nesbit. It would appear that Bland’s infidelity stemmed from a desire of an open marriage, something that Nesbit was probably ignorant to until much too late, and of course a practice almost inconceivable for a wife to pursue too. Bland’s contemporaries and biographers have commented on his libertine behaviour,
He was pugnacious, powerful, a skilled pugilist, and had a shrill, thin voice reportedly like the scream of an eagle. Nobody dared be uncivil to him.¹
Yet, it would seem that Bland encouraged Nesbit’s writing, if not only as a form of relatively stable income. As a man who professed he did not support women’s equal rights, and neither did Edith, it is to some credit that he was not so proud to disarm his wife of her pen. Moreover, he perhaps enjoyed the respect that was given to them as a literary couple, he with his journalism and Nesbit with her fiction. I would like to think that this kind-of partnership gave Nesbit at least some happiness and marital fulfilment in an otherwise fairly grim situation.
So this is where I turn to her horror stories. A few critics have noticed the ‘adult sadness’ present within her children’s books, and a few more have hinted that her tales of horror contain numerous superfluously perfect Victorian family norms, especially concerning the relationships between husbands and wives. But Victoria Margree has suggested that because these horror…
endings are frequently brutal, tragic and bleak, and refuse the happy endings that generic conventions compelled in her work in other genres²
… it has allowed Nesbit to introduce scepticism about the institution of marriage. For example, in her tale ‘The Violet Car’, an elderly couple struggle with the psychological effects of grief, injustice, and guilt after their daughter is killed by a car and the father is plagued by a ghostly vehicle that only he can see. The theme of blame and emotional suppression is obvious in this story, and Nesbit paints them as equally insidious as the supernatural apparition. The story ends with the father’s death, as if that would fix the problem, yet it only leaves the reader bleakly aware that nothing has been fixed and that the couple’s behaviour is the true horror component.
We cannot really paint Nesbit as a first wave feminist, but its evident that her life experiences and her socialist politics enabled her to question the status quo of the society in which she lived. And as with any thoroughly disturbing horror story, the heart of these stories is shot through with very human suffering, something that was all too familiar to Nesbit.
¹ Julia Briggs (2004) ‘Bland, Hubert (1855–1914)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press; online edn, May 2012, librarycatalog.vts.edu/view/article/47683
² Victoria Margee (2014) ‘The Feminist Orientation in Edith Nesbit’s Gothic Short Fiction’. Available at: http://eprints.brighton.ac.uk/13331/1/Nesbit_revised_submissionFINAL_Margree.pdf